Solid foundations and new horizons

Vijay Krishnarayan

Newly appointed Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, Vijay Krishnarayan, is looking to engage civil society more closely with governments and policy-makers, so that the re-launched Foundation can help the Commonwealth return to its core values of democracy and development.

When member states took the decision to establish the Commonwealth Foundation in 1965, they displayed extraordinary foresight. They understood back then that people working together, learning from each other and expressing themselves freely would bring the Commonwealth to life. They recognised the need for an organisation, dedicated to strengthening the association’s non-governmental networks, that could make this happen.

At the outset, the Commonwealth Foundation was committed to supporting the professional associations that provided, and continue to provide, many of the threads in the fabric of the Commonwealth. From there, our mandate was extended to include a generation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that had, for example, been isolating apartheid, conceptualising sustainable development and advocating gender equality. Throughout this time, the Commonwealth Foundation has responded to the way that civil society has evolved.

Now, as the Commonwealth questions its own continuing relevance and seeks to define its place in the world, the Foundation will be taking a hard look at itself and I believe will come up with some of the answers. The communiqué that came out of last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth acknowledged the importance of civil society in “achieving the fundamental values and aspirations of the Commonwealth” and mandated a re-launch of the Commonwealth Foundation so it can “more effectively strengthen and mobilise civil society in support of Commonwealth principles and priorities”. The Foundation will be consulting with its partners within the Commonwealth family, and beyond, to identify the ways in which the organisation can enable civil society to lead a Commonwealth renaissance.

The irrepressible dynamism of civil society is central to the very future of the Commonwealth.

The Eminent Persons Group, mandated by leaders at their 2009 summit to explore options for Commonwealth reform, recognised this importance in the title of its final report last year: ‘A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform’. They were convinced that the wealth of the association lies in the common bonds of its people. The 106 recommendations in the report made numerous references to civil society and proposed new ways in which it could engage with the Commonwealth. Yet few, if any of these, featured among the 30 recommendations that were accepted without reservation by the heads of government in Perth.

There is still work to do to convince the official Commonwealth – member states as well as colleagues within Marlborough House – of the importance of civil society for the association. There is still a tendency for insiders to use the term “Commonwealth” as shorthand for the 250 people that work at the Secretariat. This is not a sustainable view and – as long as it persists- the Commonwealth is working with one hand tied behind its back.

This is not to say that all in the Commonwealth civil society garden is rosy. We at the Foundation have developed a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of civil society organisations by virtue of the funding that we provide to them every year. We see the need for organisations to improve their own accountability, capture the value that they add to society and plan for the future. At the same time, we recognise that this on its own will not enable an effective civil society. Governments need to create the conditions that allow the sector to contribute fully to public life. This includes establishing institutions and enacting legislation that both enables and regulates civil society.

To make this happen, governments need a deeper appreciation of the value and worth of a vibrant, active and diverse civil society. The Commonwealth Foundation is unique among international organisations in that it serves governments and NGOs at the same time. We enjoy direct access to governments, and we can do more to use this to make the case for civil society. In practice, this means developing training packages for senior civil servants on civil society – its relevance, importance and how best to engage with it – and pressing for better civil society access to Commonwealth ministerial meetings. By doing these things, we will show that there is value in the tension that exists between government and civil society, and that this relationship can be complementary and constructive.

I see a bright future for the organization – one that is based on its ability to encourage people to take action in support of the values things we say the Commonwealth stands for in relation to development and democracy. It is a future where Commonwealth people learn from each other and exchange experiences as they work together in pursuit of those goals. Perhaps most importantly, it is a future where civil society organisations are able to participate in Commonwealth political processes, to share their achievements and learning with their governments. With this in store, it is easy to see why I am delighted to have been asked to lead the Commonwealth Foundation at this critical time in its development.

About the author:

Vijay Krishnarayan is Director of the Commonwealth Foundation


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